Agent for Change - Best Practices
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SECTION: Best Practices

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Agent for Change

By Mary Sedor

Article Date: 07-01-2008
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Think it's too hard to be heard in Washington or state government? The owner of Yancey Bros. in Atlanta demonstrates that spending time with lawmakers is vital to protecting your customers' businesses as well as your own.

The government "of the people, by the people and for the people," as described by Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863, is often quoted as the definition of democracy - taken to its logical conclusion, the phrase implies that citizens are expected to be involved in the political process.

But this inalienable right to participate in government is one in which, unfortunately, only a small group of equipment distributors choose to engage. Protecting equipment distributors' interests in Washington is the lifeblood of AED's Washington office and a topic near and dear to Yancey Bros. Co., a Caterpillar dealership in Atlanta, Ga. Jim Stephenson, president and CEO, is the fourth generation of family ownership.

"Yancey Bros. is a political pacesetter," said Christian Klein, AED's vice president of Government Affairs. "And Jim's support of AED is unparalleled."

Yancey Bros. consistently supports AED's Washington Education Fund and was the first company to support AED's Highway Infrastructure Task Force. On a personal level, Stephenson and his wife Donna are consistently top supporters of the Washington Education Fund.

In addition, Yancey Bros. also supports the government affairs efforts of local customer trade associations at both the local and state levels, said Stephenson. For example, Yancey supports the political efforts of the stone industry, highway contractors, mining industry and other construction industry associations in the company's local area both financially and in many other ways.

Stephenson's personal political activism goes beyond monetary contributions. He is a former member of the AED Government Affairs committee as well as a past member of AED's board of directors. He first became involved with AED's Washington office after attending a Spring Government Affairs Conference.

"I was really impressed with the speakers that Christian and Tony Obadal were able to bring together to talk to our group, and the opportunity to visit with senior policy makers in D.C.," he said.

While it was the Government Affairs Conference that got him hooked, Stephenson says good political stewardship has long been a priority in his life.

"I've always been interested in public policy and trying to be a good citizen, and also trying to make sure that public policy does not inadvertently damage our business or our customers' businesses," he said.

In fact, Yancey Bros. encourages its employees to give back to the community and participate in the political process without regard to party or political philosophy.

"We encourage our folks to communicate with their local legislators on public policy issues that come up in our state legislature," he said. "We're quite active in facilitating and encouraging them to do that because we think that better citizens make better employees, and they make us a better Yancey Bros."

The Issues

From a government affairs standpoint, Klein says Stephenson's support goes beyond his service to AED to include what he does back home.

"Jim is one of AED's most involved and effective members in cultivating current and future members of Congress and helping them understand the equipment industry and how legislation affects the industry," said Klein. "The reason he's so involved in politics is that he sees the results and understands that you can have an impact when you begin to make your voice heard."

Over the years, Yancey Bros. has been involved in many issues, including transportation funding, both nationally and at the state level; tax legislation that impacts the industry's inventory taxes; bidding procurement policy that affects how products are acquired by government agencies at both the national and state levels; and environmental regulations that affect customer operations and equipment markets.

The latest issue that Stephenson is not only involved in but actually initiated is the Home Purchase Tax Credit, which he brought to the AED Washington Office and Klein's attention. Stephenson worked with the Georgia congressional delegation to make it an issue.

Stephenson said he got the idea for the home purchase tax credit after observing an imbalance in many of the proposed solutions to the housing and foreclosure crisis. Too much emphasis, he thought, was directed at helping people who had made mistakes or taken unwise risks rather than toward helping homeowners who had not taken on mortgages they could not afford but are nevertheless being punished by the decline in the housing market, he said.

"I thought something that was directed at supporting the entire housing market and the value of housing stock in general was the appropriate response, and one that would be helpful to all of our customers who depend on a healthy housing market," he said. "That's why I was in favor of a broad-based, bottom-up tax credit support for home purchases of all kinds. That's why I started pressing for it."

Stephenson talked to several governors and senators about the proposal, and he asked Klein to take a look at it, circulate it and develop it, which he did.

Since January, AED has been a leading proponent of the tax credit on Capitol Hill. In early June, AED called on Congress to enact a $7,000 tax credit for individuals and couples who buy a primary residence before the end of 2008.

"Depending on where the housing market goes and where the politics go from here, it's definitely something I will continue to talk to our federal legislators about," he said.
Talking to current legislators as well as finding new potential candidates is something that Stephenson is passionate about.

"Jim has been outstanding in helping AED build relationships with congressional candidates and members of Congress back in Georgia," said Klein.

During congressional or senatorial races in his home state, for example, if Stephenson recognizes candidates who are more clearly aligned with the interests of his customers he calls on AED to help. He says the association is consistently supportive and helpful in his local efforts to find good state candidates.

A primary dimension of Stephenson's involvement in the political process is simply dedicating time to talk to key state and federal legislators about important issues.

The Power of One

He says the goal of his political involvement is to be an influence on the issues that matter most to not only his own business but also to his customers' businesses.

"What I'm trying to do is be as impactful as possible in creating an environment in which our customers can be successful, grow and prosper," he said. "The political environment has a lot to do with how well they can do that and on how well we can grow and prosper ourselves. In order to have impact you have to be engaged and involved, and you have to pay attention. Hopefully customers recognize and appreciate your efforts on their behalf."

Klein says that Stephenson's effectiveness in influencing public policy extends beyond his own efforts because he is also active in encouraging other AED members to join in the political program.

"I wish we had 10 times as many dealers involved because we could be 10 times more effective," Stephenson said.

Toward that end, Stephenson offers this advice to his distributor peers:

"The easiest thing to do is find an issue that you care about - whether it's on the offense or defense, whether you're trying to prevent something bad from happening or cause a change in law or policy to improve the business environment for yourselves or your customers - find an issue you care about and understand that you can speak to with knowledge and passion," he said. "If you make the effort you will be surprised to find that there are legislators and other policy-making officials who are interested in doing the right thing and who want to understand the impact of the decisions they are making - and many will share your objectives of improving the business environment for you and your customer."

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